Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Power of Stories Part 2

The Power of Stories from a Psychological Perspective

People have been using stories to pass on information and wisdom since the beginning of time.

This ancient tradition of using stories extends from ancient nomadic oral cultures that do not even have a written language to the board meetings of the top CEOs in the world (Parkin 1). 

We can see the impact of stories historically, as well.  From Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which communicated important values about abolition, to Subway’s commercial campaign using the story of Jared who lost over 200 pounds on his Subway diet (Heath 3094-3114), stories have impacted our society in powerful ways.  

People use stories to pass on the principles that are most important to them, and to motivate others to action.

Stories play a role in the psychological development of humans from the time we are very young (Gottschall 7).  Children spend the large majority of their time playing make-believe, and inventing creative imaginary stories.  

Something about stories grips us in a way that few other things do.  Even as adults, whether it is a story communicated through a song on the radio, in a book or magazine we read, in a TV show or movie we watch, even in a commercial, or just gossip at the office, stories impact almost every area of our lives, and they can be very effective in teaching and influencing people.

Peter Guber, who has a long list of accomplishments in the entertainment and business world including chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures and Mandalay Entertainment Group, as well as the co-owner of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, a longtime professor at UCLA, contributor to the Harvard Business World, and a well-traveled speaker, wrote, 

“The Trojan Horse was a delivery vehicle in disguise.  So, too, are purposeful stories.  They cleverly contain information, ideas, emotional prompts, and value propositions that the teller wants to sneak inside the listener’s heart and mind.”  (23).

There are two distinct psychological advantages to telling stories.  

  1.  Stories engage your audience and...
  2. Stories help the audience remember what was said.

Both are important to communicate Biblical truth in our world, both to believers and to those who are lost.  

We want to communicate the gospel, but how do we do that?  

Two things need to happen if we are to engage our culture.  We have to get their attention and keep it. Stories can play an enormous role in both of these intentions. We have to communicate in an interesting, memorable way that will effectively communicate truth. 

If you want to grab and keep someone’s attention to communicate a message, tell a good story. 

Margaret Parkin mentions that because interactively listening to stories involves both hemispheres of our brain (the logical, analytical left side, and the feeling, intuitive right side), 

“Stories can somehow help us to bypass our normal, analytical functions; we actually become less critical, and more receptive to change and new ideas.”  (103)  

People like stories.  They are engaging.  You can communicate truth through a story to people who may not receive it any other way.  John Wayne once told Bodie Thoene, a well-known author of Christian fiction: “You can tell people what they need to hear, what you want them to hear.  But you gotta put it in a good story.” (Eble 156)

Of course, you could grab someone’s attention using techniques other than stories.  The value of stories, though, is in their ability to reach an apathetic, distanced or even hostile audience.  

Hitting a person with direct, cold, hard information right up front (which generally stimulates only the left-brain) makes the people in the audience immediately tune out if they are apathetic, or begin mentally judging, analyzing and arguing the information if they are hostile.  Stories, on the other hand, come in the back door, using Guber’s Trojan Horse method mentioned earlier.   

In their book, Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath use the example of Stephen Denning who used stories to spur people on to action in his job at the World Bank.  
“If you make an argument, you're implicitly asking them to evaluate your argument—judge it, debate it, criticize it—and then argue back, at least in their minds. But with a story, Denning argues, you engage the audience—you are involving people with the idea, asking them to participate with you.” (3292-3294)
In their book called Speaking to Teenagers, Doug Fields and Duffy Robbins highlight the importance of illustrations in communicating the gospel by comparing straight content to spraying thirsty teenagers with a fire hose because they need water, or giving them glasses of water so that they can sip (132-133).  

In essence, that is exactly what stories do.  They package the content people so desperately need to hear in a receivable way.   Jesus is described as the Word become flesh in John 1:14.  Stories put flesh to the words and message we want to communicate so that people can understand the ‘invisible’ concepts by ‘visible’ examples.

Stories draw people into what speakers, communicators, and teachers are saying and engage them, but there is an additional benefit to using stories.  

A person is more likely to remember a point or lesson if a story is connected with it than if the point is stated by itself.

Speechwriter Jack Bergen in his foreword to Jim Holtje’s book, writes, 

“Because stories engage both the intuitive and the logical—the left and the right—segments of our brain, we are more likely to absorb and remember lessons via storytelling than through facts alone.”  (Holtje xvii)  

Holtje goes on to describe the effectiveness of using stories in the business world.  He speaks about the way we are hard-wired for stories, and since stories connect with us on a deeper level than facts or figures, even in a business context, people are more likely to act on and remember stories (2-5).

This is easy to test out.  Try to remember the sermon you heard on Sunday, and compare that to how well you can repeat the information in that, as opposed to how well you can repeat the information you saw in a movie you watched last month.  

Wilkinson highlights the fact that often we do not remember the three points of a sermon, but we remember the story (256).  Lessons are much more memorable when there are stories attached.

Peter Guber, in recounting the way he had used stories to influence in his colorful career, recalls, “I was stunned to discover how clearly I still remembered these stories, in some cases after forty or more years!  The precise dates and circumstantial details may have blurred in my memory, but the stories themselves remain resonant, clear, and actionable.  That alone is a tribute to telling to win!”  (15)

In The Seven Laws of the Learner, Bruce Wilkinson mentions that there are some universal receptors God has placed in all mankind to help us retain information (254).  

These receptors are transformational and cross-cultural, and one of them is presenting information through stories.  “Therefore,” he states, “never underestimate the value of stories and illustrations and parables.  Recast your information into a narrative and you may have made it indelible.” (256)  It works, not because we are tricking audiences into learning by telling stories, but because using stories is one of the primary ways God has designed our brains to remember information.

“God’s use of symbol and metaphor gives us a way to make connections and gain a deeper understanding of His truth.  When we write stories, we follow His model.” – Sharon Hinck. (Olson, Sjogren and Smith xvii) 

Some may think that it is a Christian virtue to stifle creativity when communicating the gospel, favoring plain speech over creative attempts.  However, one of God’s greatest gifts to mankind is creativity.  Christians are called to share the gospel with the world.  The Biblical examples and the psychological research that shows how stories engage listeners and foster better retention are clear reasons Christians should use stories as a means to communicate God’s truth to the world, both believers and nonbelievers.  There are many mediums Christians can use to do this: illustrations in teaching, fiction novels, biographies and autobiographies of strong Christian men and women, stories told through radio drama, books, and movies are all ways to reach out to the world through one of its best-loved diversions.  The results will be enough to demonstrate the undeniable power of story.

Works Cited:
The Holy Bible. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Marketing, LLC, 2011.  Print.  King James Version.
Gottschall, Jonathan. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Print.
Guber, Peter. Tell to Win: Connect, Persuade, and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story. New York: Crown Business, 2011. Print.
Parkin, Margaret. Tales for Change: Using Storytelling to Develop People and Organizations. London: Kogan Page, 2010. Print.
Eble, Diane. Behind the Stories. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2002. Print.
Heath, Chip, and Dan Heath. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. New York: Random House, 2007. Kindle ebook file.
Robbins, Duffy, and Doug Fields. Speaking to Teenagers: How to Think About, Create, and Deliver Effective Messages. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007. Print.
Holtje, James. The Power of Storytelling: Captivate, Convince, or Convert Any Business Audience Using Stories from Top CEOs. New York, NY: Prentice Hall, 2011. Print.
Wilkinson, Bruce. The 7 Laws of the Learner. Sisters, Or.: Multnomah, 1992. Print.
Olson, Kathryn S., Caleb Sjogren, and Erin E. Smith. A Novel Idea: Best Advice on Writing Inspirational Fiction. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2009. Print.

Speaking of stories, check out the My Choice Mini Adventures Facebook page to find some fun interactive stories where the readers make the decisions for the characters!

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Power of Stories Part 1

The Power of Stories from a Christian Perspective
“God made Man because He loves stories.” – Elie Wiesel, The Gates of the Forest (Gottschall)
The forest was dark.  Cautiously, gripping his sword a little tighter, he took a step forward, underbrush crunching beneath his foot.  He reached into his pack and pulled out the scroll.  He was just unfurling it when a flash of light suddenly blinded his eyes, and the clash and clamor of men and weapons sounded in his ears.  John jumped back, startled, as a large, burly man stepped into the clearing.

The man had a bushy black beard and an eye patch over his left eye.  In one hand, he held a lantern, and in the other, a large, double-edged sword.   The man sneered, and the light reflected off a gleaming gold tooth in the front of his mouth.

“Yer surrounded, young man,” he growled in a voice rougher than nails.  “Doncha even think about tryin’ to escape.”

Now quick: where were you just now?  Yes, you…the reader.  Were you noticing the chair you are sitting on, the computer screen or paper you are reading these words on?  Or for a brief moment, did you allow yourself to be transported to a dark forest where someone named John was being hindered from his mission?  

If you allowed your mind to take you to the location of the scene, to the point where you were seeing details that were not described by the author (the color of John’s hair or eyes, the size of his pack, the way the scroll looked and felt, the details of the surrounding forest) you just experienced the power of story.

It is universally acknowledged that humans love stories.  

Stories play a role in every culture in the world, in the development of children, and in the daily interactions in the mind of every single individual.  Jonathan Gottschal writes in his book, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, which examines from a scientific, secular perspective the power that stories hold over us, that: 

“We are, as a species, addicted to story.  Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” (xiv)

How are Christians supposed to view stories from the perspective of a Biblical worldview?  
Are stories a guilty pleasure that many people partake in, which should be shunned as an instrument of the flesh, or are they tools that God delights in that can be used for much good?

Clearly, the answers to these questions depend on the kinds of stories that a Christian is reading or telling.  The focus of this writing, however, is to examine the potential impact stories can have on believers and nonbelievers alike when used in the right way.  The purpose of this blog series is to first show that stories can be used to enrich and spur on faith in the life of a believer, second, to show that stories can be used as a tool to reach the lost and third, to examine why and how stories can be so impactful in these ways when used correctly.

The testimony of Scripture is the first thing a Christian should take into consideration whenever assertions such as the preceding are proposed.  

The example of the style in which the Bible itself was written, perhaps even more so than the actual teachings in it about this subject, may be the best argument for the effectiveness of story.

The Bible is a collection of many different types of literary styles.  
  • Didactic teaching (which is purely to relate in a straightforward, instructional way)
  • poetry
  • genealogies 
  • prophetic literature
  • songs
  • epistles
These are all ways the Bible speaks its message. But one of, (if not THE,) most prevalent ways the Bible teaches and uses literary genres is the Bible’s use of stories

If one were to separate the material in the Bible that is straightforward teaching, and the writings in the Bible that tell a story, even a quick comparison shows a revealing contrast.  Much of the Bible is dedicated to telling stories—whether of the creation of the world, the kingdom of Israel, select individuals, the life of Jesus, or the birth of the church—story is clearly a well-used medium to convey truth Biblically.  Why would God do this?  What purpose was there in dedicating so much of the Bible to telling stories, rather than just laying it out straight-forwardly and didactic for us?

Kathy Buchanan, a counselor and writer, who has most notably written various things for Focus on the Family, including scripts for the popular children’s radio drama, Adventures in Odyssey, put it this way when she was teaching at the Lamplighter Guild for Creative Disciplines: 

What is more impactful?  To say, ‘God is faithful’?  Or to tell the story of the children of Israel wandering in the desert, and how God continually provided for them and protected them over and over again, even though they complained and murmured against Him, to the point of almost utter frustration?”  

It is one thing to say something, and make a statement like, “God is love,” or “God is faithful.”  It is another thing to show, demonstrate, or illustrate that fact.  

As human beings, we connect more with stories, because they illustrate abstract concepts in a very real and concrete way that didactic teaching does not.  It is one thing to say that God loves us and wants to save us from our life of sin and destruction.  It is another to tell the story of Jesus dying on the cross, which illustrates the characteristic of God much more clearly than any simple statement ever could.

Clearly, the instructional style used in the Scripture is vital for our spiritual growth.  The poetry and other forms of literature are very beneficial for us to understand how God operates.  Oftentimes, however, even these forms of Scriptural writing impact us powerfully solely because we understand the stories of the people behind them, or because we are able to connect them with our own story.

  • Psalm 51 takes on an added meaning when we learn that it was written by King David after his horrible failure of sin in his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband.  
  • The teachings in 1 Corinthians are somehow easier to swallow when it is understood that these are not just unattainable principles laid out for certain high-minded intellectuals to live by, but were written for an actual real church, with real people, and real problems, facing some of the same kinds of situations that we face today.  
  • The father writing to his son in Proverbs 7 recognized that, while it was important to tell him the principles of keeping himself pure, it may be more effective to communicate that principle through the story of someone who did not follow the same advice.
  • Jesus’ own example of the way He taught is a testimony to the power of stories.  The Bible says that He never taught without a parable (King James Version Matthew 13:34).  
Countless people across the world connect to the principles taught in these fictional stories in a way that transcends the memory capacity that would be possible if it was presented as sole teaching.  Almost anyone recognizes the concepts behind the mentions of a ‘prodigal son’ or a ‘good Samaritan’ in reference to the stories Jesus told. 

Yet, Jesus also makes something clear when explaining to His disciples why He teaches in parables.   

Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.” (King James Version Matthew 13:13)  

Jesus’ parables acted as a screen for those seeking truth.  Not everyone understood His parables, because their hearts were blinded.  

Nevertheless, oftentimes even those who disagreed with Him understood what His points were as He related spiritual things to those things easily understood by the common people (Matthew 21:45).  

The power of stories comes when a person recognizes a connection between the truth in the story and how it correlates with their own lives, and has a willing heart that is ready to receive correction and to change.

Sometimes, though, a person can be so blinded by their own situation and the details of what is going on around them that they may need a change of perspective to see things as they really are.  By stepping away from the situation, and observing the same thing in another person, it is often clearer to see a truth about the situation than we could in our own lives, because our flesh, rationalizations, and pride muddle our viewpoint.  

It is like being lost in the woods, and trying to solve the problem by just looking at your surroundings.  If you are already lost, continuing to look at your own circumstances likely will not help you.  Getting perspective of the area from a different vantage point like a map is more likely to give you a good indication of where you are.  Stories can give us a “bird’s eye view” of life, by taking us out of our own situation to look at someone else’s situation, and by doing that, we often recognize ourselves in it.

Nathan the prophet used this technique in 2 Samuel 12.  King David was entrenched deep in his sin.  How could Nathan get through to him?  David was the king.  He had already clearly justified himself in his mind, and taken extreme measures to cover up what he had done.  A straightforward statement would likely not do much good.  Nathan had to first bring David outside of his own perspective so that the king could see things as they were without being muddled by his own thinking.  Nathan used a story with characters David could relate to before revealing David within the story.  David first had to look at it from the perspective of the story, and see the sin for what it really was before Nathan could make his declarative statement, “Thou art the man.”  (2 Samuel 12:7

Scripture is replete with many more examples of significant people using stories to impact a person or group, but in summary:
  • Storytelling is an incredibly effective way to communicate a message. 
  • The Bible itself is a testimony of God’s belief in the power of stories. He did not just give us didactic material to study, but gave us stories of men and women of God that we could relate to. 
  • A teaching has so much more impact when there is an example or story to illustrate it. 
  • When a story is attached, suddenly the point becomes relatable. 
  • Messages stick more firmly in people’s minds when they hear a story, than when they are simply told something. 
The secular world also recognizes the incredible power of stories psychologically, which we will discuss more fully in the next post.

Works Cited:
The Holy Bible. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Marketing, LLC, 2011.  Print.  King James Version.

Gottschall, Jonathan. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Print.

Monday, October 17, 2016

My Choice Mini Adventures Launch!

Tobbians: The Key in the Bottle by [Schroeder, Michael]

I am excited to announce the launch of a project I have been working on in conjunction with Kiiai.

My Choice Mini Adventures is a series of interactive stories, in which the reader makes decision for the characters as the story progresses.  As you read, you come to a cross-roads, a decision, a choice, and then follow the path that your decision takes you down!

It has been a lot of fun to collaborate on this project.  It seemed simple enough at the beginning, though I'll confess it is a lot of work (even for an overactive imagination!) to plot all the different possible paths that make up this adventure!  It has also given rise to some interesting thoughts about the play between the character's choice and the author's designs...(perhaps I'll write more about that later).

I would love for any and all who read this blog to visit the Amazon store and purchase one or both of the books and write a review about it!  The completion and publication of the e-book is only half the battle...now we enter the dreaded marketing stage (which I don't know too much about, in all transparency) and it would be much appreciated if you would like the Facebook page, and like and repost updates and announcements!  (And, as I mentioned, purchasing and reviewing on Amazon is even better!)  Our official launch date is Cyber Monday, and up through that we will be running a free giveaway promotional deal, so if you're cheap like me and would like to save your money, that is another way to get your hands on it.

So far, there are two books in this series, one by me, as you can see in the graphic above, and the other by Azakalia Sant.  The books are unrelated except in format and style as a "My Choice Mini Adventure".  Warble's Beginnings is a sci-fi fantasy story in the style of Star Wars or Star Trek and Tobbians: The Key in the Bottle is a fantasy book, in the character of The Chronicles of Narnia or Lord of the Rings, meaning that my story includes things like knights, dragons, cave trolls, dwarves, delves, and the ever-mysterious Whisps.

As you may know if you have read many of the posts on my blog or attended any of my Bible studies or classes, this sort of writing and story may seem like a strange departure for me.  I will be transparent in that, while I write from a Biblical worldview, and make allusions to Scriptural concepts and ideologies, these stories do not contain overt preaching or presentations of the gospel, and there may be those who wonder why I would write such a thing if I do not intend to reach people with the gospel through it.

It's a good question, and I would like to answer it by publishing a research paper I did while at college on the power of story.  Since it is lengthy, I will publish it in segments on my blog over the next few days.

But to answer in brief here, I believe that all we do should be for the glory of God.  When I build fences, I may not be presenting the gospel verbally to every customer I interact with, but I intend to live my life in such a way as to point to God and the work Jesus has done in me through His death on the cross and resurrection from the dead.  Sometimes this leads to an overt, verbal presentation, and sometimes it doesn't, but everything in my life is done with that intent in mind.   I believe our art should be reflective of that concept as well.  This project is an experimental, fun project that a group of us is attempting.  It is both a creative and business endeavor.  Some may simply enjoy the story for what it is.  Others may have a door opened in their heart to see something deeper and yearn for something more.  That is what I pray will happen.  Either way, I intend to point people in whatever small way I can to the power and glory of our Creator.  I love stories and my next several posts will give systematic reasons for why.

In the meantime, check out My Choice Mini Adventures on Amazon and let us know what you think!  Thanks for reading!